August 2008

My Rage Against the Plastic Bag

Author: Elisabeth Reed

Think Green: Helpful hints for becoming more environmentally friendly (First Edition)

I have often wondered why baggers at the grocery store feel the need to put gallons of milk and other items with very capable handles in a plastic bag. Is the thin plastic bag protecting the plastic jug from something I am unaware of? While I am swiping my debit and showing my loyalty card to the cashier, the milk always finds its way into it’s second layer of plastic before I can say, “That’s okay; I don’t need a bag.” More often than not, the bag is stretched to capacity and usually breaks before I reach my car. It is with bagged milk jugs that I begin my rage against the plastic bag.

While plastic bags provide a convenience to shoppers, scientists are just uncovering the harmful impact these sacks have on the environment by filling up our landfills and, over time, becoming toxic, thus contaminating our soil and waterways. Currently, shoppers are charged for plastic bags in countries such as Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and Holland. China just came on board, banning plastic bags, with southern Australia and the U.K. not far behind. Here in the United States, cities such as San Francisco and Oakland, California ban the bags and promote reusable sacks. Retailers are catching on as well. Furniture megastore, IKEA has become the first major U.S retailer to begin charging for bags—five cents apiece—the first step in their campaign for a “no plastic bag” policy.

While I don’t see the plastic bag ban gaining any momentum in South Carolina any time soon (no comment), we as residents can take it upon ourselves to reduce our waste and its negative effect on the environment. Here are my tips towards thinking green and, oh yeah, avoiding those nasty plastic bags.

Bring your own bag
Look around your house. You may have canvas bags to use already. Beach bags are usually generous in size and make great bags for groceries. I like to leave my bags in my car so they are always there when I need to make a quick trip into the store. Many of our local markets are carrying canvas bags for as little as $1. (And, yes, it is perfectly acceptable to walk into Publix with a Piggly Wiggly bag.) However, if you feel the need to look chic at the grocery store, you can purchase all kinds of hip bags online or elsewhere. I chose the envirosax at www.acacia.com. They make me feel ever so green and I proudly walk out of the store holding my gallon of milk… by the handle.

Just say no to bags
When buying small items, skip the bag. If you stop by drugstore to get a tube of toothpaste, ask yourself if you really need a whole plastic bag to walk the toothpaste from the store to your car. Most likely not.

Think beyond groceries
Don’t discount the number of bags that can accumulate during an afternoon shopping for clothes, shoes and other necessities besides food. If you are visiting either of our Tanger Outlet malls, for instance, bring along a hip cloth bag to toss your goodies into while you shop. When you reach your maximum weight limit, just empty out the goods into your car and go back for more. If you didn’t bring a bag along, try to condense the bags as much as possible. Ask for a large shopping bag at your first stop and combine all your purchases along the way into that same bag. No, you won’t look like Julia Roberts toting all of her prizes in Pretty Woman, but then again… you probably wouldn’t have anyway.

Remember to recycle
If you have no other choice and you must choose plastic, be sure to recycle the bags at your nearest grocery store. Most of our markets, including Piggly Wiggly and Publix, have collection stations near the entry of the store. To keep your collection of plastic bags under control, many of our big box retailers such as Target and Bed, Bath and Beyond sell plastic sack storage containers. This is a great item to hang in a closet or pantry to keep you organized for your next trip to the store or if you need to quickly grab a bag to reuse.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am very environmentally conscious. However, there are two occasions, when even I become a little less green.

Leftovers. Although I cringe having my leftovers placed in a Styrofoam container and then wrapped in a plastic bag, I have had the not-so-pleasant experience of cleaning my car seats after a few sharp curves upon leaving a restaurant. When red sauce finds its way out of a container onto beige canvas, even the greenest of them all regrets not asking for that extra protection.

Forgetfulness. We all live busy lives. There have been a handful of times when, after getting my one-year-old situated in the grocery store cart and starting to check items off my list, I ended up kicking myself in the cereal aisle saying, “I left my bags in the car!” In this situation, I opt for paper bags instead and request that they be filled to the brim. I ask that all other items I can carry myself be left in their birthday suits (e.g. milk jugs). At least I didn’t forget my son.

Plastic Sack Stats
Each year, an estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide. That comes out to over one million per minute. Billions end up as litter each year.

According to the EPA, over 380 billion plastic bags, sacks and wraps are consumed in the U.S. each year.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. goes through 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually. (Estimated cost to retailers is $4 billion)

Hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, whales and other marine mammals die every year from eating discarded plastic bags mistaken for food.

Plastic bags don’t biodegrade, they photodegrade—breaking down into smaller and smaller toxic bits, contaminating soil and waterways and entering the food web when animals accidentally ingest them.

As part of Clean Up Australia Day, in one day nearly 500,000 plastic bags were collected.

Windblown plastic bags are so prevalent in Africa that a cottage industry has sprung up harvesting bags and using them to weave hats, and even bags. According to the BBC, one group harvests 30,000 per month.

Plastic bags are among the 12 items of debris most often found in coastal cleanups, according to the nonprofit Center for Marine Conservation.

Statistics according to www.reusablebags.com

Envirosax
Paper or plastic? How about neither? Lightweight, waterproof, eco-friendly bags are reusable and strong; thanks to the reinforced seams, each holds the equivalent of two supermarket plastic bags. Plus they’re cute, colorful, and the wide carrying straps won’t dig into your hands. Set of five polyester bags (each different) arrives in a small pouch that tucks into a purse or glove compartment. Each unrolls to a roomy 19” wide x 16 ½” high.

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